Blues Faces: Celebrating the Work of Sam & Ann Charters
Friday, October 20, was set aside at the University of Connecticut to celebrate the pioneering work and vision of Sam and Ann Charters and their decision to donate their extensive collection of blues recordings, photographs, and other related material to the University's new Dodd Center for Alternative Media. The event, "Celebrating Shout and Song," was marked by a day of lectures and seminars in their honor, capped with a concert by the duo Cephas & Wiggins followed by Chicago blues legend Otis Rush and his band.
Back in the 40s and 50s, a young Sam Charters scoured used record shops in the south for old recordings of blues players like Lightnin' Hopkins, Sleepy John Estes, Robert P. Williams, and Pink Anderson. Back in the twenties and thirties, these blues greats had recorded for small labels, their albums distributed locally - sometimes in editions as small as 500 or 1000 records. In these recordings, Charters heard something that he had never heard anywhere else and he was afraid that it might soon never be heard again. Rediscovering these players and their disappearing music became a passion that turned into a lifelong vocation.
In the 50s, he married Ann and the couple began traveling around the deep south in an old green car loaded up with recording equipment. Many of the old players he'd heard on the old records were difficult to find, and everywhere they were harassed and threatened by whites who resented their simple dismissal of the color line and the ease with which they crossed it. Police steered them away from the "rough neighborhoods," warning that they would not be protected and occasionally an armed crowd chased them out of town. But they persisted and succeeded. Their recordings of Lightnin' Hopkins, for instance, opened the door for the come back of this blues legend. Later in the 60s he recorded The Chicago Blues Today for Vanguard, with Buddy Guy and Junior Wells, Otis Span, Johnny Shines. Through the Charters, and a handful of others, America's great blues legacy was rediscovered and brought into the cultural mainstream where it has been a source of inspiration for musicians in every genre here and around the world.
At a pre-concert reception, the couple reminisced about the early days, relating the story of their first field recording session in Mobile Alabama, and the memorable photo session when they finally found Sleepy John Estes, now blind, and his protective wife.
I hadn't spoken to Sam Charters since 1993 when I called him up for advice. I was teaching called American Troubadours and he turned me on to hip-hop, especially the proto-rap music of Gil Scott Heron and The Last Poets. He'd also stopped by my house once, years before that, to buy one of my albums. I had no idea who he was at the time, but his visit makes sense to me now. It isn't just the listening to music that excites Charters - it's the discovering of it and the hunt to find it. At the reception, he told me he'd been persued by several archives, including the Smithsonian, but chose UConn because they were the only ones who could meet his two main criteria: first, that the collection would remain intact, and second, that it would always be accessible to students in its original form. "Oh, so they'll be able to listen on vinyl?" I joked. "Yes," he said matter of factly. Of course.
Cephas & Wiggins, Otis Rush in concert-> 1 2